“It's everyone's First Amendment right to protest and to speak up if they feel like they are not feeling fairly treated,” Commander Paul Follis with the Houston Police Department said. “We welcome protests, demonstrations, rallies and marches because it's good for society. What we are not going to tolerate is violence, vandalism and destruction of other people's property.”
Demonstrators came from Houston and beyond to honor Floyd’s life and protest his killing. Chants ranged from “I can’t breathe” to “Say his name, George Floyd” and a variety of others decrying police brutality. Officials estimated 60,000 people participated in the march.
While the march remained peaceful, tensions grew around 6:30 p.m. as smaller groups marched back to Discovery Green from Houston City Hall, Follis said.
There were about 100-150 people yelling at police officers, holding up signs and protesting in general while becoming more agitated, he added.
“Some were very derogatory to the police, and we understand that,” Follis said. “I don't think any of us were offended by that. We understand that they are hurting ... from years of police violence.”
Follis said he locked eyes several times with one man who was particularly angry and seemed to be the informal leader of the group.
“I felt that we were about to lose control of that crowd, so I made my way down the steps from a very safe place and into the middle of the agitated crowd to talk to this guy,” Follis said. “All he wanted to do was talk and be understood, and he wanted me to kneel with him. We talked for a few moments before that and I got down and knelt with him and talked some more.”
Follis said the two discussed police brutality and racial tension between police and minority communities as well as personal matters including family.
“He told me how he wants a better life for his kids,” Follis said. “We all want better lives for our kids. We had a very good moment and a very healthy dialogue.”
Follis’ actions disarmed the agitated crowd and protestors felt comfortable approaching more police officers to talk about their concerns for another two hours, he said.
There have been a few HPD officers injured, but overall Houston has not seen the amount of violence as other cities, Follis said.
“We are the most diverse city in the country, and our police department absolutely directly reflects that diversity and its members,” he said. “It's easier when you have someone in your department who can explain these things to you and help make decisions and spread that knowledge. You can't be a majority white police department in a minority community and expect to be successful.”
Follis said before speaking to the upset man in the crowds he saw an angry, agitated and hurt human being but realized they shared a lot of the same concerns of life in general.
“Everyone you deal with on a regular basis, whether it is on a call or a protest, is a human being just like you,” Follis said. “We are doing the best we can, both he and I, to raise our families and provide for our families.”
“The last thing he said to me was, ‘Go take care of your kids,’ and I said back to him, ‘Take care of your kids, too,’ and I realized that as different as we are, we're not really that different.”